14 February 2011

Valentine's Day: A Little About "Cupid"


This is all right off the top of my head, but I thought you might like to know who that chubby, little, naked, baby boy with a bow and arrow is. A lot of us have wondered, "Where does he come from, and what's so special about him?"

Well, he comes from Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid. Venus, trying to trick Dido, Queen of Carthage, into falling in love with Aeneas, the hero of the story, has had her son, Cupid, take on the form of Aeneas' little son, Ascanius.

Now, Ascanius bears a striking resemblance to his dad, who from all accounts was a very handsome figure, and Cupid, in the guise of Ascanius, pulls on Dido's heart strings by arousing her maternal instincts and making her sympathetic to Aeneas.

That's where we get the most memorable image of Cupid in the literary tradition. The word, cupidus, in Latin usually gets translated as "desire," but it's a little more involved than that, for Latin speakers used it for lustful or covetous desire. Romantic love itself is far more often than not represented as a kind of dementia in the old texts. The ancients generally did not "Romanticize" love like moderns do. In the Aeneid, Cupid really is creepy, and, maybe, even a touch evil.

Your instincts were right. Cupid is weird.

Just to give you a little more background, not to go on and on, but to round this out, Cupid was the Roman version of the Greek god, Eros, who was also represented in the form of a beautiful boy, but he was the one with the wings and the bow and arrows. The two have gotten conflated. One really neat point about the Greek conception was that Eros also represented primordial creativity which could find actuality in both sexual union and the creation of children as well as artistic production.

My own theory about the popularity of the baby Cupid as the representation of Love (which I am sure is far from original) is that we started seeing more images of the baby Eros/Cupid in the medieval era because they were concerned that the young boy or youthful Eros was just a little too sexy, so there was some social pressure to avoid such depictions. Virgil was very popular in the medieval era too, so his portrayal was taken up with enthusiasm. Last, the historical Cupid has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with angels. That is a later invention; again, one suspects the effort to de-sexify him. We have also another conflation. The word "angel" is angelos in transliterated Greek, and ἄγγελος in Ancient Greek. It means, simply "messenger." That role was taken most often by Hermes, who was another flying shapeshifter who most often appeared in the guise of a beautiful youth.

Like I said, this is all off the top of my head, but I do happen to be translating Book IV of the Aeneid right now, so it has been in my mind, and I'm not just making this stuff up—though I would have gotten a host of "citation needed" flags were I to write a Wiki.


StephanieC said...

I love the instincts part. I say, never trust what appears to be a flying baby with a bow and arrow.

Interesting stuff.

Now, next post should be on how North America commercialized the pants off today to make couples feel guilted into gifting and spending, and single people to feel like they should be coupled.

Interesting post!

Richard G. Crockett said...

Hey Stephanie,

Yeah, it's a fake holiday, and in the eyes of world, a joke. I think the point of my post was that at it's heart, there was something twisted. Instead of the selfish manipulation of commercializers, there was the selfish manipulation of deities.

Same story, different players.

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